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Traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. Myths relate the events, conditions, and deeds of gods or superhuman beings that are outside ordinary human life and yet basic to it. These events are set in a time altogether different from historical time, often at the beginning of creation or at an early stage of prehistory. A culture's myths are usually closely related to its religious beliefs and rituals. The modern study of myth arose with early 19th-century Romanticism. Wilhelm Mannhardt, James George Frazer, and others later employed a more comparative approach. Sigmund Freud viewed myth as an expression of repressed ideas, a view later expanded by Carl Gustav Jung in his theory of the collective unconscious and the mythical archetypes that arise out of it. Bronislaw Malinowski emphasized how myth fulfills common social functions, providing a model or charter for human behaviour. Claude Lévi-Strauss discerned underlying structures in the formal relations and patterns of myths throughout the world. Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto held that myth is to be understood solely as a religious phenomenon. Features of myth are shared by other kinds of literature. Origin tales explain the source or causes of various aspects of nature or human society and life. Fairy tales deal with extraordinary beings and events but lack the authority of myth. Sagas and epics claim authority and truth but reflect specific historical settings.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on myth, visit Britannica.com.